Mind

Personality Without Genes?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticMar 17, 2012 8:27 PM

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According to apaper just published (but available online since 2010), we haven't found any genes for personality.

The study was a big meta-analysis of a total of 20,000 people of European descent. In a nutshell, they found no single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with any of the "Big 5" personality traits of Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. There were a couple of very tenuous hits, but they didn't replicate.

Obviously, this is bad news for people interested in the genetics of personality. But I wonder if the implications are even wider -

We know that there are SNPs associated with physical traits like height, weight, hair colour, eye colour, and the risk of various diseases. If none of those SNPs are associated with personality, then none of those traits are causally associated with personality.

"Short man syndrome"? A myth. Rod Stewart was wrong about blondes. There's no such thing as a "fat personality". And so on. Maybe that's not surprising, but more generally, the implication would be that the genes we inherit have no direct or even indirect influence on our personality, which is a pretty radical conclusion when you think through it.

I'm making some assumptions here. Maybe some genes are correlated with personality, but the currently popular "Big 5" approach is just a poor way of measuring of personality. It could also be that there are so many interacting genetic and environmental effects on personality that any given effect is tiny by itself, and even bigger sample sizes, or multivariate data analysis, would be needed to detect such effects.

de Moor, M., et al. (2010). Meta-analysis of genome-wide association studies for personality Molecular Psychiatry, 17 (3), 337-349 DOI: 10.1038/mp.2010.128

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